We knew it was coming. But we didn’t understand that within a few weeks the whole world would start shutting down. It’s existential. In Austin we wait for the impact to fully hit, even as we try to adjust to an ever-changing new normal. This pause in progress – this moment of silence in the buzz of human history, it’s uncanny.
How Are We Responding?
Some of us are still in denial. I see people at the store without gloves. Going for groceries but not considering the people who may have spread germs on the packages. Hanging out with people who have hung out with people, etc.
Some of us are in panic mode. Hoarding. Buying guns. Spreading rumors. Getting political.
For the most part, though, I see people giving each other plenty of room on the sidewalk. Wearing gloves to the grocery store. Isolating themselves physically, but not socially. Yes, please, more of that.
So Where Are We Really?
We have started to shift the trajectory, but the outcomes are still unclear. As of March 10, we were only testing 10-25 people for a region that includes twenty counties. We were saying we only had a few cases, but in reality, we likely had more. But as of March 17, this changed. City and county officials heard from community groups that people in the community were not practicing social distancing, that they needed more specific instructions, and a clear statement that community transmission was likely already happening, even though we had not tested for it. One coalition made a list of demands, and hundreds of Travis County Physicians reinforced these statements. The very next day, as a city we changed our strategy to severely limit social interaction. This was the right thing to do.
Why was this so important? Because before that point, Texas’ trajectory was mimicking that of Italy, Spain and France. These countries, whose outcomes are now quite bad, each delayed extreme measures until the 19th day after the increase in cases moved from a latent phase to an exponential one. (This is the point where the curve goes from flat to curving upwards.) Our first day in exponential phase was about March 6, when we moved from 3 cases to 5. Twelve days later, Austin has stopped the action. And hopefully, those 7 extra days will make a world of difference. (By contrast to Italy, China implemented a shutdown the day after entering the exponential phase. As a result, they flattened their curve.)
What Does That Mean For Us All Now?
We should ALL practice EXTREME SOCIAL DISTANCING. NOW is the time for extreme measures. Not one day later. Now. My grandparents’ generation knew and talked about Typhoid Mary, a chef, who was asymptomatic and infected 58 people, including 3 who died. That’s our reality. The youngest of us have the least symptoms. Just because you feel good doesn’t mean you are safe to be around. Choices you make now could protect or kill someone you love. If we are to protect our elders and avoid overwhelming hospitals, we MUST act now.
Most important to understand when considering the need for social distancing now is the potential for overwhelming ICUs as currently undiagnosed infected cases progress to more severe symptoms within 2-3 weeks. Based on nationwide averages, there are 46 ventilators/100,000 people (with only 19.7 being full-feature vs. less than full-feature models). That translates to a rough total of 13,000 ventilators in Texas. At a 16 percent ICU rate (as experienced in Italy), we would max out our ventilators by sometime in April if we don’t flatten the curve.
What Should You, Specifically, Do?
Stay home if you can. Isolate. Do not hang out with anyone that does not live with you. If you have to go in public, wear gloves and/or do not touch public surfaces, and stay 6 feet away from anyone who does not live in your house. When you get home with your purchase, treat them as contaminated. Use a bleach solution or other known viral disinfectant to disinfect the surface before you put them away. And wash your hands. Clean doorknobs, keys, wallets, credit cards, phones, steering wheels and laptops. If you get delivery, don’t open the door until they leave and wipe the surface down. To the greatest extent possible, do not rely on the elderly for childcare. This kind of extreme behavior may help us avoid the realities Italy, Spain, and France are facing. I don’t say this in isolation.
A Surprisingly Functional Community
But I want to talk about what is happening behind the scene with your community leaders. Community leaders are self-organizing in coalitions, working in partnership with the city and county to address the ways in which we can build the most equitable and resilient community possible.
Community organizers, religious leaders, medical professionals, university educators and community advocates are working together with City Council, the Equity Office and the Travis County Commissioner’s Court to coordinate a two-way channel for communication. Our goal? To make Austin as equitable and resilient as possible through cross-sector communication.
Here’s what we (and by we, I mean several self-organized groups) have accomplished:
- Working with the city on announcements that answer the community’s questions
- Providing feedback for processes and systems that are not working
- Spreading the word about important status updates
- Organizing religious leaders to discuss ways to support our spiritual health
- Beginning to create a one-stop website for community outreach
- Creating PSA’s and videos to support people in making informed choices
- Strategizing ways to leverage community engagement for the best outcomes
- Exploring strategies to crowd-source solutions to our growing health crisis
From my view, the collaboration is beautiful. And all the work the city has done to forward anti-racist trainings at all levels of government are paying off. I can hear all of us planning and thinking with equity in mind. We are evaluating systems against the lived experience in the community, and building communication channels to ensure that this continues. This work is by no means perfect, but it is happening. And it’s inspiring.
Does this mean we are #AustinStrong? I hope not. I hate these kinds of cliches. Austin’s history has included a legacy of racist policies and inequitable systems. This is our opportunity to move forward in a new model. And it is actually happening. But it will not happen on its own, and the work cannot be reduced to some nice narrative to brag about. It’s real, living work that requires all of our participation.
Stay tuned. More is coming. A website to organize questions, collaborations and volunteering. New coalitions forwarding systemic solutions. Emerging plans for resilience we can all embrace. In the meantime, PLEASE take extreme caution and find ways to stay connected.